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If you are concerned about a child being neglected or abused, call Maine’s 24-hour hotline at 800-452-1999 or 711 to speak with a child protective specialist. Calls may be made anonymously. For more information, visit maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/reporting_abuse.
In Maine, like many other states, the number of children in state custody rose during the pandemic. At the same time, reports to child abuse hotlines decreased as did the number of children seen in hospital emergency rooms with signs of neglect and abuse, although those who were seen typically had more severe injuries than in a typical year.
Experts worry that with many schools closed for portions of the pandemic, teachers and others were not able to see signs of abuse and neglect, which likely increased as parents and children experienced stresses associated with the pandemic.
Against this backdrop, we share the long-standing concern of many lawmakers in Augusta that protecting the welfare of all Maine children should be a higher priority for state government.
That’s why we’ve cheered efforts, by both Gov. Janet Mills and her predecessor Gov. Paul LePage, to devote more resources to child welfare. Under Mills, the state hired 33 new caseworkers through its last budget and the governor has proposed hiring 15 more with funds in a supplemental budget, which has yet to be voted on by the state Legislation. Caseworkers are the frontline people who work with many of the state’s most vulnerable families.
A recent report said that this is still insufficient to handle the number of children in the state’s care.
So, we understand the motivation behind legislation, which was unexpectedly approved by the Maine Senate last week, to create a new Department of Child and Family Services solely focused on child welfare. The measure was opposed in the Maine House of Representatives on Monday.
The shortcomings in the state’s child and family services, however, aren’t simply a matter of bureaucracy. It has long been a matter of focus and resources.
The Mills administration has not fully resolved this situation by any means. But, we believe that a reshuffling of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services would take precious time and resources away from children and families that need attention now.
Maine has organized its social services agencies in numerous ways over the years. Despite these reorganizations, many of the same problems — too few services to meet growing demand and, specifically, children and families falling through the cracks of an agency with overworked and underpaid staff — have persisted no matter how those departments are configured.
For example, a state survey two years ago found that 54 percent of DHHS caseworkers felt too overworked to do their jobs properly, with turnover at 23 percent in 2018. It decreased to 15 percent last year, still too high but trending in the right direction.
Rearranging DHHS would be no small feat. The agency is the state’s largest in terms of money that passes through its doors. Much of that money comes from the federal government. It is earmarked for specific services that are provided or coordinated through specific offices.
It may seem like a small issue, but creating a new Department of Child and Family Services could jeopardize or delay some of that federal funding. In addition, it makes sense to keep programs (and funding sources) for vulnerable children and families under one department. For example, if a family receives TANF, MaineCare and child welfare services, coordinating those through one department makes the most sense.
Creating a new department would take time, money and other resources away from the important work of keeping Maine children safe, whether at home or with a relative or another type of placement.
The tragic cases of Marissa Kennedy, Kendall Chick and many others, remind us that it was not a specific child welfare agency that was lacking. These children were let down by a system that was understaffed while trying to fulfill changing directives from management.
Changing the structure of the Department of Health and Human Services won’t solve these dangerous shortcomings. Instead, the state should continue to invest in more frontline DHHS child welfare staff, and ensure they have the training, support and tools they need to best help families that are struggling on the edge of crisis and desperation.